If the events of January 2013 didn’t bring back Baltimore’s mysterious Poe Toaster, I guess nothing will.
First, The Baltimore Ravens made a historical run for the AFC Championship, and will face the San Francisco 49ers in the Superbowl next week. The town of Baltimore is ablaze in a brilliant purple glow. There are Purple Birds everywhere. They glare at this Steelers girl with piercing eyes worthy of Poe’s nevermore-spouting feathered harbinger of doom.
I don’t think Poe was much of a sports fan. But both The Ravens and their mascot (Poe) are named for him. Maybe I harbored some secret hope that the Poe Toaster would wake up from a long winter’s nap and go “Hey, things are heating up around here. Guess I should get my game on.”
But he didn’t.
In reality, the Baltimore Poe Toaster has probably been multiple people. He’s been around since approximately the late 1930s, and some say earlier. Until 2010, the mysterious figure would visit the Poe’s original Baltimore City gravesite on the writer’s January 19th birthday. The black-clad figure would toast the gravesite with a glass of cognac, then leave three roses and the rest of the bottle behind. In 2010, the Toaster failed to appear. Onlookers gathered in 2011 and 2012 in hopes of witnessing the time-tested tradition, but he never returned. Most fans unwillingly admitted that his visits were over.
In 2013, Poe Forevermore, a group celebrating Poe and his Baltimore home base, hosted their annual birthday bash. I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve heard and read, neither was the Poe Toaster.
There was, however, a sneak preview of “The Following,” the new Fox Series starring Kevin Bacon.Yes, I really did jump from waxing nostalgic about a Baltimore literary and historic tradition to a new TV series starring the “Six Degrees of” dude. Bear with me.
As a reader, writer and Baltimorian, Poe has been a prominent figure in my life. So when I heard about “The Following,” I had to give it a whirl. The show’s premise is that imprisoned, Poe-obsessed literature professor (and convicted serial killer) Joe Carroll has managed to build a cult of like-minded killers he manipulates into doing his bidding.
In the premiere episode, Carroll briefly escapes from prison. Bring in former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who heroically captured Carroll years ago and now spends his days sipping vodka from water bottles and checking his pacemaker.
At first, I felt like these characters were hitting me over the head with their personalities. Hi, I’m the handsome, brilliant, evil dude who molds young minds and kills women. Hey, I’m the aging, flawed and broken (but also handsome in a day-after-drunk-kinda-way) hero.
In spite of that, I was drawn into the first episode. The show takes risks and asks you to stretch your own imagination to enjoy it. No one is shocked that they have to suspend disbelief to enjoy a show like The Walking Dead. We went into it knowing that zombies aren’t real. But serial killers and their strange obsessions do exist. So when someone makes a TV show about them, there’s a reality-based framework.
We know Jeffrey Dahmers and Jack The Rippers are real. But so far we haven’t encountered a puppet-master serial killer controlling a ring of like-minded psychos from jail. That has some critics calling the show’s basic premise implausible.
This wasn’t the case for me. It takes more balls to stretch the realm of truth than it does to deal in outright make-believe, and I think the premiere episode handled it well. One of Carroll’s minions is a prison guard who “overlooked” his internet access. Like many real high-profile killers, he has prison groupies. He’s a literature prof – a charismatic teacher and a master of words. To me, it isn’t really such a stretch that he could easily manipulate minds that were already warped enough to want to be in his world. And if you think prison groupies aren’t real, just ask Timothy McVeigh.
The Poe references he uses as his clues or to decorate his murder sites are admittedly in-your-face. You can’t get much more obvious than scrawling “Nevermore” in blood on the wall of a murder scene.
But peel back that layer of obvious Poe creepery and there’s much more going on. Ryan himself is quite Poe-like. Carroll says a surviving victim is his “unfinished business.” But really, the Poe-obsessed killer’s “unfinished business” is Ryan, the man who captured him. Ryan, who has become a socially awkward, overly serious, troubled, vodka-swigging hothead. Ryan, who wears a pacemaker after being stabbed by Carroll and whose figurative heart is botched and broken by his inability to save Carroll’s victims and his love for the killer’s wife. The man is in a constant state of lost, angry mourning.
How “Poe-tic” is that? Poe was a brilliant writer who obsessed about thumping hearts and women who died early tragic deaths. He was an awkward man with a drinking problem who remained pretty much obscure and troubled throughout his life. His life was one of lost love and obsession with death and living on the fringe.
So for me, the Poe references tossed out as clues or taunts aren’t really the primary focus. Carroll’s Poe obsession comes out most in his relationship with Ryan. You get the impression that Ryan wasn’t vodka-fueled, awkward, angry or lovelorn before encountering Carroll. The killer has actually built himself a Poe-like nemesis. Rather than being trite, I find that a brave and chancy twist.
I’m not sure Poe would give Superbowls and Harbaugh-brother battles much thought, and with his love of mystery he might be glad the Poe Toaster will remain unknown. But I do think he’d enjoy where “The Following” is going so far. As for me, it’ll definitely take the edge off my Monday nights and divert me from all those glaring Purple Birds.